‘Hawks-Bolts is ‘going to be a good one’
The Tampa Bay Lightning are on the verge of their longest winning streak in 12 years, though they’ve once again been outdone by the Chicago Blackhawks.
Last season’s Stanley Cup Final participants stand as the NHL’s two hottest teams entering Thursday night’s marquee matchup, with the Blackhawks on a franchise-record 12-game run and the resurgent Lightning vying for a seventh consecutive win.
No buildup was really necessary for the Blackhawks’ first visit to Tampa since their pivotal 2-1 victory in Game 5 of a finals series it won in six, but both teams’ stellar recent play has added to the hype.
Chicago (32-13-4) has outscored opponents 47-22 since last losing Dec. 27, with Tampa Bay (25-17-4) nearly as impressive in compiling a 24-13 margin over its best stretch of the season.
The Lightning can earn their longest streak since winning a club-record eight straight during their 2003-04 championship season by halting a four-game skid against Chicago including last year’s finals. The Blackhawks earned a 1-0 home win Oct. 24 on Jonathan Toews’ goal 17 seconds into overtime.
“We turned the page on last year, but the storyline is going to read, ‘the Stanley Cup Finals a year later’,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “But they won (Tuesday) and their streak is at 12 and we’re at six so that’s 18 wins between us. It’s going to be a good one.”
The Blackhawks’ dominant stretch has been led by the same core that carried them to their third title in six years last spring. Patrick Kane has 21 of his league-leading 71 points during the streak, Toews has eight goals and five assists and Duncan Keith 12 points and a plus-11 rating.
Rookie Artemi Panarin has done his part as well by amassing six goals and eight assists, including two of the latter to support Corey Crawford’s 38 saves in Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Nashville that opened a three-game trip.
“We’re getting contributions from everybody, all four lines, all six (defensemen),” Keith said. “It’s one game at a time. I think we’re trying to be smart and playing a good team game.”
Crawford owns a 1.88 goals-against average in winning nine consecutive starts.
“He’s been amazing,” said Kane, who scored his 30th goal Tuesday to already match a career high. “He just seems like he’s got a whole new focus in the net, and some nights he looks unbeatable. It’s pretty fun to watch. I think he’s very underrated as far as goalies go around the league, but we feel we have the best kept secret with him.”
The Lightning are well aware of Crawford’s talents, as he held them to 10 goals in the finals and stopped 21 shots in this season’s previous meeting. The steady goaltender helped Chicago limit Steven Stamkos to one assist in the 2015 championship series.
Stamkos leads Tampa Bay with 20 goals but has taken a back seat of late to young Russians Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov. Both had a goal and an assist in Tuesday’s 6-4 win over Edmonton, giving Namestnikov 10 points over the unbeaten run highlighted by a hat trick Friday against Pittsburgh.
Kucherov has five goals and four assists over a six-game point streak and 26 points in 20 games since Dec. 5, second only to Kane (30) over that span.
Ben Bishop figures to be back in goal after Andrei Vasilevskiy worked the Edmonton game. The All-Star has yielded three goals over a three-start winning streak to lower his GAA to 1.97, second in the NHL.